MotoGP 2011 Qatar Preview

The Hondas and Yamahas appear ready for Round One


MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen previews the Losail round of the 2011 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the Grand Prix of Qatar.

Ah, spring. That superb time of year when baseball players return to Florida and Arizona spitting tobacco juice and scratching their nether regions. Spring – when the swallows return to Capistrano, and the fast movers of MotoGP return once again to the world’s great racing venues. In mid-March, the NBA season grinds on, the NFL seems bent on self-destruction, and NHL boxing matches keep getting interrupted by guys trying to play hockey. Thank God for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And thank God for MotoGP.

The premier class landscape is vastly different than it was only one year ago. Last year, Fiat Yamaha was being fronted by the legendary Valentino Rossi and his dynamic Spanish protégé Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Honda team was represented by oft-injured Spaniard Dani Pedrosa and the dangerous Andrea Dovizioso, back for his second promising year wearing Repsol orange. The Ducati factory team featured swashbuckling Australian Casey Stoner and good ol’ American boy Nicky Hayden, looking to gain back some of the ground they gave up in 2009. Fellow American Ben Spies was settling into his first premier class season aboard the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, and a handful of former 250cc stars – Hiroshi Aoyama, Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera – looked capable of making some noise in the big leagues.

Jorge Lorenzo

2010 was, then, a year of passing torches. Jorge Lorenzo seized the universe from his teammate and rival and won the 2010 championship going away, scoring more premier class points in a single season than anyone ever. Rossi, battling serious injuries for the first time in his career, missed three races and still managed to finish third in the world. Pedrosa put his stamp on the Repsol factory team, but finished a distant second to Lorenzo after injury struck him late in the year. Stoner finished a disappointing fourth, just ahead of Dovizioso. Sixth place went to Rookie of the Year Spies, with the top ten rounded out by Nicky Hayden, rookie Simoncelli, and veterans Randy de Puniet and Marco Melandri.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Fast forward to 2011 and marvel at the changes on the grid. Gone altogether are Marco Melandri (to World Supebike), Mika Kallio, and Aleix Espargaro (both to Moto2). The 3½ factory teams have radical new looks. The Yamaha factory team includes defending #1 Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies. The factory Repsol Honda team now sports three accomplished riders, as Pedrosa and Dovizioso return, joined by the ascendant Casey Stoner. The factory Ducati team, now officially seeking a little respect, seats the returning Hayden and “newcomer” Rossi, who is struggling to make the transition from his beloved YZR-M1. And Old Lonesome, Alvaro Bautista, represents the entire Suzuki factory program on what appears to be an improved GSV-R.

Alvaro Bautista

Over on the other side of the tracks, the satellite teams have been busy, too. The Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team figures to be weaker this season than last, as Colin Edwards returns for what is expected to be a year-long victory lap, joined by MotoGP rookie and dashing young Brit Cal Crutchlow, who managed to grind off the tip of his left pinky testing at Losail earlier this week, throwing a bit of a spanner into his early season works. Fausto Gresini improved his San Carlo Honda team, retaining and up-and-coming Marco Simoncelli and filling the underachieving Melandri’s seat with the compact buns of Hiro Aoyama, apparently fully recovered from his, um, broken back suffered last season.

Hiroshi Aoyama

Pramac Racing booted both Kallio and Espargaro, and in exchange signed 67 37-year-old Loris Capirossi, late of the factory Suzuki effort, and Randy de Puniet, whose bosses at LCR Honda apparently noticed how he almost always qualifies higher than he finishes. Doesn’t appear to be shaping up as a great year for the Pramac guys, although their grid girls are all-world. LCR signed Toni Elias, back from a productive one year sentence in Moto2, where he won the 2010 championship. Hector Barbera returns for another year of wrestling with his yellow Ducati, and young Karel Abraham, demonstrating in convincing fashion what an outstanding job he did selecting his parents, was given a satellite Ducati team to play with for a couple of years by his dad. Be good, Karel, and don’t BREAK it.

Recent Testing and Recent History

Allow me to summarize the complete offseason testing program in 100 words or less: The factory Hondas are mad fast, most noticeably Stoner and Pedrosa. Even some of the satellite Honda guys are flying – Simoncelli for sure, and Aoyama at times – although Elias has yet to get up to speed, lending credence to those who observe that the worst rider in the premier class could be the best rider in Moto2.

Dani Pedrosa

Lorenzo and Spies have been Siamese twins, rarely more than a few yards from one another, but not regularly in the top three, either. Lorenzo is, by no means, a lock to repeat as champion this year, and may become fully engaged beating his teammate, as Spies is looking comfortable and poised.

Ben Spies

The real trouble, however, is in the factory Ducati garage, as Rossi has spent the winter trying to make Italian fans forget Casey Stoner, with little to show for his efforts. With the new season set to begin this week, Rossi looks like he’ll be spending a lot of time involved with Bautista, Edwards and Hayden in the middle of the pack, not up front with the likes of Lorenzo and Stoner. Hayden, for one, must be salivating at the notion of giving the legendary Rossi a run for his money every week, perhaps regaining some respect in the process. The adjectives most often associated with Ducati this offseason: over-engineered and un-rideable.

Valentino Rossi

Rossi and Stoner have won the last six premier class races at Losail, with Rossi coming up sevens last year as Stoner unaccountably fell early in the race. And although Losail is a very Ducati-friendly track – wide, long and straight – don’t expect a Ducati on the podium Sunday night. Look for factory Hondas and Yamahas to dominate the early action this season. See if Simoncelli, Aoyama or even Bautista appear ready for prime time. Join me in pulling for Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards.

With the Motegi round pushed back to early fall for the second year in a row – last year Icelandic volcano, this year Japanese earthquake and tsunami – let’s just make it official, that the Japanese round will be held annually in the early fall after getting postponed from early spring owing to some weather weirdness somewhere.

Gentlemen, remove your tire warmers.

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